PrevArti have recently restored Emvin Cremona’s altarpiece Our Lady of Lourdes with Angels and Saints at the Paola parish church of Our Lady of Lourdes, thanks to a sponsorship of Bank of Valletta. Joseph Agius talks to PIERRE BUGEJA, PrevArti’s head conservator, and to KRIS GILSON, BOV manager for Corporate Communications, People and Change, about the restoration process and the bank’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme.

JA: It is admirable that BOV, through its Corporate Social Responsibility programme, is helping in the preservation of Maltese artistic heritage. What were the main reasons for choosing this particular work by Cremona?

KG: Cremona is considered an icon in the local artistic scene, and his works of art are prestigious and renowned. When an appeal for help came from the parish priest of Paola’s Our Lady of Lourdes parish church, we immediately recognised the importance of the altarpiece that was due for restoration.

We also knew that the project would fall into the hands of well-established head conservator Pierre Bugeja from PrevArti, so we understood that this was a high-calibre project which the bank would be proud to adopt. We literally adopt such projects, because the bank not only grants financial aid, but follows up the process from start to finish, conducts site visits during the process and even instils a culture of appreciation in these works of art among our staff and customers alike.

From left, Pierre Bugeja, Rev. John Muscat (Paola Lourdes Parish Priest) and Charles Azzopardi (head of CSR at BOV) at PrevArti.From left, Pierre Bugeja, Rev. John Muscat (Paola Lourdes Parish Priest) and Charles Azzopardi (head of CSR at BOV) at PrevArti.

JA: What major problems did you encounter during the restoration process of the altarpiece?

PB: This work of art by Cremona is a multi-panel composition executed in the marouflage technique, that is, oil on canvas fixed onto a rigid support, which in this case is wood. The damage suffered was mostly aesthetical, where the accumulation of dust, dirt and especially traffic pollutants had become embedded in the oil paint film during the years that it was placed in the relatively modern church dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in Paola. This accumulation created a sort of greyish transparent film over the surface which dulled the original chromatic hues of the pigments expertly selected by the artist.

The accumulation of dust and dirt for a long time, especially in the uncontrolled ventilation and humidity of the space around the artwork, had also by time caused what is known as ‘blooming’, especially on dark painted areas, which produced a cloudy whitish effect due to presence of high humidity. In this case, we were able to remove it together with all the accumulated particulates on the paint surface. The paintings were then given a UV-protective varnish layer which will serve as a protection from the light coming from the windows just above the altar facing the paintings at the top.

From left, Charles Azzopardi, Rev. John Muscat and Pierre Bugeja with one of the panels.From left, Charles Azzopardi, Rev. John Muscat and Pierre Bugeja with one of the panels.

JA: Does BOV envisage embarking on sponsoring more restoration projects in the near future? If so, can you perhaps provide hints as to what artworks are next on the agenda?

KG: The conservation and pre­servation of Malta’s and Gozo’s cultural heritage is one of the main pillars of our Corporate Social Responsibility programme, which lately has been incorporated in a wider spectrum of

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles. As announced recently, we are also financing the restoration of the 19th-century crucifix attributed to Alessandro Farrugia at St Barbara church (tal-Kapuċċini) in Kalkara. Another project is the two statues, one dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and the other to St Roque at the Franciscan church of St Mary of Jesus (Ta’ Ġieżu) in Valletta.

A major ongoing project is the restoration works being carried out at the Gran Salon at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, which are revealing various layers of decorations from different times in the history of this hall. There are other projects that are currently being evalua­ted and which will be announced in the coming weeks.

It is worth mentioning some of the most prestigious projects that the bank has supported, such as the Mattia Preti ceiling at the chapel of Santa Caterina at the Auberge d’Italie; the restoration work on the 20 original paintings by Cremona on which the mosaics that now adorn Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary in Gozo were subsequently commissioned; the numerous titular paintings by eminent Maltese artists that adorn many parish churches and chapels throughout Malta and Gozo; and the miraculous crucifix at Ta’ Ġieżu church in Valletta.

We literally adopt such projects, because the bank not only grants financial aid, but follows up the process from start to finish- Kris Gilson

JA: Bearing in mind that this work is just over 50 years old, do you find it troubling that works that are relatively quite new already need restoration? What atmospheric and man-made elements contribute to such deterioration?

PB: The Maltese islands offer a relatively humid environment and climatic conditions that can be very unstable in general, and one really has to be very careful when displaying works of art, especially those made from organic materials such as paint­ings made on canvas or wood.

In general, churches in Malta, particularly those that offer frequent mass services where there is always movement and changes in the environment ‒ such as when the church is open, lights are turned on, people gathering, some with air conditioners switched on, then everything off and then back on after a gap of a couple of hours.

The restored central panel.The restored central panel.

A gathering of people increases the temperature and reduces the humidity; air-conditioning units reduce the relative humidity; while when the church is closed, the humidity will rise again. These fluctuations and instabilities of the environment will be felt by works of art and consequently they will react to these changes, and there will be a build-up of expansion and contraction forces acting upon the artworks which can cause cracking, detachments, deformations, and if left untreated, flaking of paint. Sometimes modern works of art are even more susceptible to such fluctuations than antique works of art due to the fact that today’s materials sometimes can be of lesser quality.

JA. Do you find this work of particular importance in Cremona’s church art oeuvre? What do you think warranted its choice by BOV to sponsor its restoration?

PB: Cremona had managed to infiltrate the ecclesiastical field and painted several paintings for churches in Malta and Gozo, both on canvas as easel paintings as well as marouflages on walls, ceilings and cupolas. This painting from the Paola church is in fact quite unique. In total, the whole painting has an area of around 50sqm, which is massive for an easel titular painting and, for this reason, Cremona opted to divide his composition cleverly into panels so that the Virgin is vertically at the centre of the altar on the wall flanked by the angels on a gilded background and the earthly figures and saints at the bottom on either side of the altar.

In this way he manages to fill up practically the entire wall behind the altar, something that in my opinion worked really well. And now, thanks to BOV’s sponsorship of its conservation, it can now be enjoyed by the public and will be preserved for future generations.

The restored altarpiece in all its splendour.The restored altarpiece in all its splendour.

JA: Are such initiatives conducive to creating an environment in which other corporate entities would embark on similar restoration projects?

KG: Large corporate entities all have their own CSR initiatives which normally would reflect their corporate and brand values. Those values vary from one entity to another. However, we know that even in the financial services industry, other corporates are adopting a similar approach to ours. We do not see this as a competitive approach or rivalry, but rather as collective effort in order to preserve our heritage and ensure that it is passed on to future generations in a better state.

JA: Is there appreciation, after all, from the general Maltese public, that a bank, an entity that a large proportion of the population regards with scepticism and suspicion, is showing interest in the legacy that makes us Maltese? Do you think that such initiatives can contribute to a change in mindset and portray the bank as a caring institution?

KG: Bank of Valletta has been supporting these kinds of initiatives since its inception, and we take great pride in being very close to the Maltese community. Feedback about initiatives we take are always very well received by the public, especially when these are of a local nature, such at this project. In a similar restoration project we supported recently, the restoration works were taking place at the premises of the parish church itself, and parishioners could also chat with the restorers and get more insights on the works being carried out. This shows that society in general feels connected and shows interest.

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